GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Photos from automated trail cameras on Mount Hood appear to show a rare mountain fox that's known to exist in California, but isn't well documented in Oregon.
Scientists hope to get hair and saliva samples for DNA tests that could confirm it is a Sierra Nevada red fox, one of the rarest mammals in North America. The federal government is considering Endangered Species Act protection for them.
Photos were taken in March in a wilderness area on Mount Hood above tree line, by cameras set out by Cascadia Wild of Portland, Ore., which teaches people to track animals in the wild.
"We didn't realize the significance of the finding," said Teri Lysak of Cascadia Wild. "We've been seeing fox tracks for years and didn't think anything of it."
The photos appear to show two different animals, based on their coloring, she said.
They passed the photos to researcher Jocelyn Akins, who is studying wolverines on Mount Adams in Washington. The photos made their way to the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that has petitioned for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the foxes under the Endangered Species Act.
Akins has also gotten a photo of a red fox on Mount Hood.
The news was exciting for Ben Sacks, a geneticist at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who has been studying the foxes in California, where they are protected by the state.
"Up until fairly recently, these western mountain foxes were under the radar," he said.
Traditionally, red mountain foxes have been divided into Rocky Mountain, Cascades and Sierra Nevada subspecies, but were never really studied because they are so hard to find, said John D. Perrine, a conservation biologist at California Polytechnic State University.
A few years ago, the Sierra Nevada red foxes were thought to be down to about 20 animals living around Mount Lassen in Northern California, at the southern tip of the Cascades. Then another small population was found near Sonora Pass in the Sierras north of Yosemite National Park, Sacks said.
Some U.S. Forest Service biologists got 5 trail camera photos north and south of Crater Lake in Southern Oregon between 1993 and 2001. But the last DNA evidence of the foxes in Oregon was a skin collected in 1939.
Then in March 2011, a ski groomer on Mount Hood snapped a photo of a fox with a flip phone, and showed it to Atkins. That led to the trail cameras being set on Mount Hood, baited with stinky liquid lures loaded with pheromones that can draw in animals from miles away.
"There was no evidence they had gone away," said Sacks. "We knew they were there historically. There was simply no information."
New DNA samples will give scientists an idea how far the populations have fallen: the more diverse the samples, the more individuals are breeding. Genetic studies on the two California populations show they are both small.
Sacks said special baited brushes will be set out near Crater Lake to try for hair samples. Scientists will also be looking for a fecal sample.
Lysak said they will be trying for hair and saliva on Mount Hood. The way to get saliva is to put meat inside a sock, and when the animal tries to eat it, they leave a sample behind.
"It seems unlikely those are the only two populations in Oregon," Sacks said. "We know where to look."